The rattle that united a mother shot in the Spanish Civil War and her 83-year-old son

Catalina Muñoz Arranz took the toy with her to her execution, and nearly eight decades later it has been returned to her child, who was just eight months old when she was killed

Martín de la Torre holds the rattle his mother took to her execution in 1936.
Martín de la Torre holds the rattle his mother took to her execution in 1936.Álvaro García
Nuño Domínguez

Eighty-three years ago, a mother of four named Catalina Muñoz Arranz was facing a firing squad. In one of her pockets, she carried a colorful baby rattle which just a few days ago had been in the hands of Martín de la Torre Muñoz, her youngest son, who was just eight months old at the time.

If my mother was here, I would tell her that I love her

Catalina was executed on September 22, 1936, and buried with her son’s toy. On Saturday, 83 years later, Martín was given back the rattle, and along with it, the history of a mother of whom he has no memories.

“If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy,” said Martín on Friday, sitting in the living room of his house in Cevico de la Torre, a village in Palencia in northern Spain, where his mother also lived. For most of his life, Martín has tried to avoid talking about what happened to her, so as to not upset his father. The family never knew where she was buried, and her story has only come to light thanks to the baby rattle, which was found by a team of archaeologists in 2011 inside a grave dating back to the Spanish Civil War.

Martín holds the toy between his hands and struggles to find the words to express how he is feeling. “What times those were,” he manages to say, adding in response to questions from his daughter Martina, that what happened to his mother should never have been allowed to happen.

The remains of Catalina Muñoz Arranz next to the baby rattle, which were found in 2011.
The remains of Catalina Muñoz Arranz next to the baby rattle, which were found in 2011.Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi

“This rattle is an exceptional object. Firstly because it helped to identify the body of Catalina, because it was known that she had a eight-month-old son, and secondly, because no other similar object has been found in a Civil War grave,” says Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society.

“It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war,” she adds.

In 2011, the anthropologist was excavating the graves of dozens of people murdered by the Nationalist faction during the Spanish Civil War, and buried in the old cemetery in Palencia. A public park called La Carcavilla was built over that cemetery, and the bones were found under a set of swings. Ponciano Quintero, one of the volunteers at the dig, was the first people to spot the rattle lying next to the body. The flower-shaped toy, in bright pink, yellow and green colors, looked like it had come from another time.

García-Rubio carefully excavated the object and brought it to an ethnographer who confirmed that it could easily date back to 1936. “Due to the pressure of the earth, it is missing the bell or ball which, if shaken, would produce the sound that is characteristic of these objects,” the ethnographer wrote in his report.

On Friday, García-Rubio removed the remains of Catalina from her box and tried to put together her skull, which had been shattered by the impact of the bullets. The goal is to join the back part of the skull with the bones from her face. This work, along with a childhood photo of Catalina’s daughter Lucía, who was 11 at the time, will be used to help recreate Catalina’s face, and by doing so help make up for the lack of photographs of the mother of four, which is a source of pain for Martín and the rest of the family.

Martín’s rattle, which was found next to the body of his mother.
Martín’s rattle, which was found next to the body of his mother.Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi

To understand why Catalina was murdered on September 22, 1936, one has to go back to May 3 of that year. “After 10pm, Máximo Inclán and a friend, both members of [the fascist-inspired] Falange party, were returning back to their village in their carriage after having spent the afternoon at the local fiestas of Cevico, where Inclán had a girlfriend named Luisa Merino,” explains Pablo García Colmenares, a professor of modern history at the University of Valladolid. “A group of locals from the village where waiting for them as they left. They stopped them and a conflict broke out between the Falange members and the members of the Casa del Pueblo [centers for sympathizers of the Socialist Party]. Inclán and his friend took out guns and shots were fired. Inclán ended up getting stabbed and taking refuge in the house of his girlfriend’s neighbor, where he died. His friend, who was also injured, was able to escape to another village and report the assault,” recounts the historian, who is also the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Palencia (ARMH).

“Days later, they arrested Tomás de la Torre, Catalina’s husband. The facts of the case as described in the ruling from July 4 blame the murder on Tomás, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison. This sentence probably saved his life, as being in prison saved him from being killed or executed once the war began,” he adds.

Catalina was arrested in August, with the Civil War in full swing. Lucía remembers that Catalina ran away with Martín in her arms when they came to arrest her, but fell down in the backyard of a house. Martín was unharmed. Catalina handed over her son to some neighbors and was taken into custody. According to Lucía, her mother had a black-rimmed handkerchief and was wearing an apron with a pocket. The mayor of Cevico and other witnesses accused Catalina of going to protests and defending leftist ideas. She was also accused of washing the blood off her husband’s clothes after Inclán was murdered. She confessed to attending demonstrations, but denied everything else. Unlike her husband, Catalina was not sentenced by a judge within a democratic system but rather a court martial in Palencia, where Francisco Franco’s troops triumphed from day one. Initially, Catalina was sentenced to life in prison for military rebellion, but days later, without any further reasoning, she was condemned to death.

Lucía de la Torre Muñoz, 94, recounts what she remembers about the arrest and execution of her mother.
Lucía de la Torre Muñoz, 94, recounts what she remembers about the arrest and execution of her mother.Víctor Sáinz

“Of the hundred or so women who were murdered during the early months of the war in that area, Catalina Muñoz is the only one who was tried. The rest were taken out for a paseo,” explains García Colmenares. The paseos, literally meaning strolls, were a euphemism used during the war when people would be taken out of their homes for a walk that ended in summary executions outside of town.

Thanks to the fact that there was a trial, there were also cemetery records identifying the burial site, and Catalina’s body could be identified without DNA samples from her family. According to the forensic report, Catalina was 1.54 meters tall and suffered bullet wounds to her skull, cervical vertebrae, collarbone and ribs. Next to her bones, archaeologists also found buttons and the rubber soles of her shoes, size 36. The baby rattle was next to her left hip bone, as if it had been carried in the apron pocket.

Martín does not remember anything about his mother or the toy. He was raised by an aunt in Cevico. When Martín’s father was released from prison, he went to work in the Basque city of Bilbao. After retirement, he returned to Cevico and spent the last eight years of his life there. The family never discussed what had happened, and Martín never asked about his mother to prevent painful memories from resurfacing.

“My heart shuddered when I found out the news about where my grandmother was buried. It was a moment of both happiness and sadness,” says Martina, Martín’s 56-year-old daughter, who has been even more excited than her father about recovering Catalina’s story.

After learning about the rattle in May, Martina and her cousins, Lucía’s children, went to recover Catalina’s remains. They will now be buried in Cevico de la Torre, next to Catalina’s husband Tomás. Martina wants to keep the rattle inside an urn so that her own children and grandchildren will know the family story.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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